Rigid Agility

The title of this post points out the absurdity of the approach to Agile software development in many organizations: they want to use a system designed to be flexible in order to quickly and easily adapt to change, but then impose this system in a completely inflexible way.

The pitfalls I discussed in my previous blog post are all valid. I’ve seen them happen many times, and they have had a negative impact on the team involved. But they were all able to be fixed by bringing the problem to light, and discussing it honestly. A good manager will make all the difference in these situations.

But the most common problem, and also the most severe, is that people simply do not understand that Agile is a philosophy, not a set of things that you do. I could go into detail, but it is expressed quite well in this blog post by Brian Knapp.

The key point in that post is “Agile is about contextual change”. When things are not right, you need to be able to change in response. Moreover, it is specifically about not having a set of rigid rules defining how you work. Unfortunately, too many managers treat Agile practices as if they were magical incantations: just say these words, and go through these motions, and voilà! Instant productivity! Instant happy developers! Instant happy clients!

Agile practices came about in response to previous ways of doing things that were seen as too rigid to be effective. The name “Agile” itself represents being able to change and adapt. So why do so many managers and companies fail to understand this?

In most cases, this misunderstanding is greatest when adopting these practices is mandated from the upper levels of management, instead of developing organically by the teams that use it. In many cases, some VP reads an article about how Agile improved some other company’s productivity, and decides that everyone in their company will do Agile, too! I mean, that’s what leadership is all about, right? So the lower-level managers get the word that they have to do this Agile thing. They read up on it, or they go to a seminar given by some highly-paid consultants, and they think that they know what they have to do. Policies and practices are set up, and everyone has to follow them. Oh, wait, you have some groups in the company who don’t work on the same thing? Too bad, because the CxO level has decreed that “everyone must do these same things in the same way”.

Can you see how this practice misses the whole point of being Agile? (and why I started this series with a blog post about Punk Rock?) A team needs to figure out what works for them and what doesn’t, and change so that they are doing more of the good stuff and less (or none) of the bad. And it doesn’t matter if other teams are running things differently; you should do what you need to be successful. In an environment of trust, this happens naturally.

Unfortunately, when Agile is imposed from the top down, trust is usually never considered as important, and certainly not the most important aspect of success. And when teams start to follow these Agile practices in this sort of environment, they may experience some improvement, but it certainly will not be anything like they had envisioned. Teams will be called “failures” because they didn’t “do agile right”. Managers then respond by reading up some more, or hiring “agile consultants“, in order to figure out what’s wrong. They may decide to change a thing or two, and while it may be slightly better, it still isn’t the nirvana that was promised, and it never will be.

Unfortunately, too many people who are reading this and nodding their heads in recognition are stuck in a rigid company that is afraid to trust its employees. All I can say to you is do what you can to make things better, even if things still fall short. And in the longer term, “contextual change” is probably a term you need to apply to your employment.

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